Written by Sue Gifford
Ofsted’s 2017 report, Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools, begins by arguing that the Reception Year is ‘a missed opportunity’ for many children, leaving them ‘exposed to all the painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers’. This was hardly likely to win the hearts and minds of Reception teachers, squeezed by the demands of a curriculum with unrealistic aims for five year olds (Gifford, 2015), by Year 1 teachers and headteachers requiring higher achievement, by moderators requesting reams of evidence, and by their own consciences and knowledge about appropriate education for small children. So unsurprisingly, Bold Beginnings (BB) has resulted in an outcry and Gill Jones, Her Majesty’s Inspector for early years, has spent a lot of her time in meetings to explain the report. All this has not helped the cause of promoting mathematics in the early years.
Ofsted’s intention was laudable: to identify how some Reception classes raise the achievement of disadvantaged children for the longer term. BB followed Ofsted’s 2016 report which found views that the Reception Year did not matter as children would ‘catch up later’: however, data confirmed that many of those who start behind, stay behind. Currently only a half of disadvantaged children achieve ‘expected’ levels compared with two thirds of others. From about 200 schools which maintained achievement for disadvantaged children they identified a representative sample of 41 schools, according to their technical document. Ofsted deny accusations of selecting schools according to their teaching approach and using ‘flawed evidence’.
Inspectors report that what distinguished these Reception classes was regular ‘direct teaching’, alongside play and the usual Reception activities. This echoes previous reports about pre-school mathematics pedagogy, which found the most effective practice was to have some adult-led activities (eg REPEY). Whereas intervening opportunistically in young children’s play might seem more desirable, this may not be effective with current teacher ratios (and it may require more mathematics professional development than early years teachers are likely to receive).
The question is therefore not about whether ‘direct teaching’ works, but what is appropriate for young and disadvantaged children, in terms of both curriculum and pedagogy. The Early Learning Goals for the end of Reception have been criticized as not fitting with either the Year 1 national curriculum or with research about predictors of later achievement. (The Goals are currently under review by the DfE.) BB does recommend focusing on age-appropriate aspects of number, such as subitising (i.e. recognizing the number of items without counting). Unfortunately, it also reports that successful teaching was ‘based on’ the Year 1 national curriculum. Ofsted maintain this has been misinterpreted as following the Year 1 curriculum instead of preparing for it. However, BB refers to successful schools using content from Year 1 and gives an example of children representing three-digit numbers with base 10 apparatus (similar to that in the photo above). The Judgement Record for inspectors also focuses on place value. (Currently the national curriculum requires Year 2 children to ‘recognise the place value of each digit in a two-digit number’.) This implies accelerating some children into the Year 1 curriculum and beyond, with the consequence of increasing the ‘gap’ which the report aimed to eliminate. A better aim would be for all children to be confident about the meaning of small numbers. The report might have been clearer about an appropriate curriculum if there had been guidance from a mathematics expert panel. However, due to time pressures, there was no mathematics guidance for inspectors, compared to several pages for language and literacy.
The BB report does describe some age-appropriate pedagogy, with references to games outdoors and counting during snack time, but in citing successful schools using ‘schemes’, it also implies written mathematics in workbooks. This unfortunately risks reinforcing negative views of mathematics associated with ‘narrowing the curriculum’ and ‘overly formal teaching’, as in the Guardian letter. Bold Beginnings missed an opportunity to celebrate early years mathematics, and show how it can look delightfully different from primary practice, with outdoor activities, games, rhymes and stories. BB could have highlighted the Characteristics of Effective Learning with examples of five year olds’ creative solutions to practical problems and their inventive ways of recording these (see nrich). Examples like these might also have made teachers feel more positive and enthusiastic about early mathematics.
The report recommends that mathematics becomes a government priority, with resources receiving similar funding to literacy. Hopefully, the DfE will interpret this as including professional development, the need for which is mentioned throughout the report, but missing from the recommendations. The real missed opportunity in the BB report is, instead of berating teachers, to enthuse them with a positive image of distinctly early years approaches to teaching mathematics. Bold beginnings presents the mathematics education community with an opportunity to do this, to support early years mathematics in initial and continuing professional development and to provide evidence of effective practice which builds on young children’s undoubted capacity for enjoyment of and curiosity about mathematics.
School of Education
University of Roehampton